pounds 500m start for babies

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The Independent Online
MOTHERS WITH new-born babies will receive advice on where to find books, toys and medical help for their children under a pounds 500m scheme to be announced by the Government this week.

Health visitors are to be trained to offer "lifestyle" advice to mothers as part of a push to give toddlers in Britain's most disadvantaged areas a better start.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, and Tessa Jowell, the Health Minister, will on Thursday announce the "Sure Start" programme which is designed to give toddlers access to books and educational equipment.

The extra money, to be allocated to 250 local playgroups and councils, is to help establish "one-stop shops" for mothers with young children.

The new family drop-in centres, which could include a GP, children's library, play group and toy bank, is designed to allow children access to health and early-learning facilities to give them a boost before they go to school. The initiative will also allow mothers the chance to seek advice from a range of professionals in one place.

The pounds 500m comes as research from America shows that toddlers introduced to books and other stimuli at an early age perform better at school.

A source close to Mr Blunkett said the ministers combined on the initiative in a bid to give toddlers from poor areas a better start in life. "Providing that flying start will make a real difference to the education and health of toddlers from poorer backgrounds," the source said. Health visitors will be trained to broaden the kind of advice they give. This could include the location of play groups, toy banks and day-care centres.

But the scheme is likely to attract criticism that Labour is trying to meddle in children's upbringing. The Government aims to target sink estates and isolated rural areas where help for mothers is limited.

"The money will be going to a range of providers. Some may go to local authorities and play groups and other amounts to councils," the Department of Health source said. "We will be issuing guidance on bidding, and supporting the best schemes, in the next few months." The one-stop shops will mirror Birmingham's "basic skills agency" which lends books to mothers with young children.

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